Commentary

Atlanta gains an edge

Hawks' Johnson exploits a Bulls team that prides itself on its defense

Updated: May 3, 2011, 7:35 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- After listening to the defeated Chicago Bulls on Monday night, I thought U2 just broke up.

"We gotta get back to playing with the Edge," I thought they kept saying.

Oh, they were saying an edge, not the Edge.

[+] EnlargeJoe Johnson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJoe Johnson scored a game-high 34 points in leading Atlanta to victory in Game 1.
In any event, the out-of-tune Bulls could have used a couple of guitars to throw in front of Joe Johnson's mug, because the Bulls' hands and bodies, and certainly their heads, weren't good enough to shut down the famous "Iso Joe Show."

Johnson scored 34 points to lead the Atlanta Hawks to a 103-95 upset win over the Bulls in the opener of their second-round series. This game, combined with the lingering ennui of the Pacers series, was a stark reminder that the regular season is past tense. Not that the Bulls can get away from their record-setting regular season.

The Bulls honored Tom Thibodeau as coach of the year before the game, and just before halftime, ESPNChicago.com broke the news that Derrick Rose would be officially named most valuable player on Tuesday.

But in this game, Thibodeau couldn't get his team to defend, and Rose had a slow start offensively and finished the game with no free throws, though he did score a team-high 24 points and added 10 assists.

After upsetting Orlando in the first round, No. 5 seed Atlanta is enjoying the spoiler role.

"The regular season is over," Johnson said. "We're starting a new season. Collectively, as a team, we've been great in the postseason. We've approached every game with the same intensity."

The Bulls have also approached most of their playoff games with a beguiling consistency: Falling behind and relying on fourth-quarter heroics. Against the Pacers, that was doable. But the Hawks present a much tougher challenge.

Atlanta, which shot just 42.5 percent in the Magic series, hit 51.3 percent of its shots Monday night in front of a stunned crowd. The Hawks hit 7 of 13 3-pointers, outrebounded the Bulls 38-37, and looked like the better team.

Don't hate the Hawks because they throw up shots like a 21-year-old.

"Whether they get credit or not, the way they play, that's how they play," the Bulls' Luol Deng said. "They got guys that make shots. They just had their way with us tonight."

"They shot the lights out, they shot 51 percent," Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said. "When you let a team shoot that high a percentage, you're not going to win too many games, especially in the playoffs. Give the Hawks credit, they played a great game."

Johnson was 12-of-18 from the field, including 5-for-5 on 3-pointers. He showed why the Bulls coveted his services before Atlanta lavished him with a lockout-causing $123 million deal. Johnson shot 44 percent in the regular season and less than 40 percent against the Magic, but the defensive juggernaut that is the Bulls let him go wild.

"He's so big and strong, he's got such great pace to his game," Kyle Korver said. "He doesn't ever rush anything. He really did a good job seeing what was out there. We tried to double him a couple times, he made the right read. He's just a really good basketball player."

Ronnie Brewer and Keith Bogans combined for some diligent man defense on Johnson, but the Bulls only occasionally doubled him. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound Johnson took advantage with a variety of baseline jumpers, runners, 3-pointers -- you name it, it's in his arsenal.

Johnson took over when it mattered most, too.

The Bulls led 69-65 with a minute to go in the third quarter, but Johnson scored eight of the team's next 10 points as the Hawks took a 75-71 lead 18 seconds into the fourth. Chicago never got any closer.

"We will look at it," Thibodeau said of doubling Johnson. "The first thing you have to ask is: Are you executing properly? Then you also have to ask yourself: Are you playing hard enough? Once you answer those two questions, you decide if you want to change."

Former Bull Jamal Crawford scored 22 points on 50 percent shooting, and Kirk Hinrich's replacement, Jeff Teague, had 10 and five assists. Marvin Williams, Josh Smith and Al Horford combined for only 22, but they weren't garbage baskets. I get the feeling those three have some big games in them, but for now, the Bulls are focused on the high-volume guys.

"The biggest thing is we've got to stop Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford," Boozer said. "That's where it's at. Too much Joe. Too much Jamal. We do a better job on them and we win tonight. That's something we have to correct. We'll look at the tape [Tuesday], and we'll be better in Game 2."

They'll definitely watch the tape Tuesday. Thibodeau is the Roger Ebert of Deerfield. The first-year head coach deserved his regular-season coaching honor, but coaches and players earn their reputations in the postseason. Thibodeau's work as an assistant coach during the Boston Celtics' championship run in 2008 is proof enough of that.

To keep that Red Auerbach trophy, he might have to import real birds of prey for practice at the Berto Center to put some fear into his players, who couldn't bottle that energy from Game 5 against the Pacers.

"We were not challenging shots, we were not keeping the ball in front, we were not finishing our defense," Thibodeau said. "And we played low-energy offense. You cannot do that in the playoffs."

The Bulls got into an early funk, and it took the bench to get them back on track. Teague, Williams, Johnson and Smith scored the game's first nine points before Thibodeau had to burn an early timeout. Halfway through the quarter, the Hawks led 16-6, and 28-18 at the end of the quarter. The Bulls' reserves helped them get back into it, but the starters need to set a better example.

"Indiana did that too, teams coming out aggressive from the start," Deng said. "Guys get confidence when we allow them to do that. We've got to get back to playing with an edge."

There's that word again. Really, playing with an edge is just a buzzword for giving a darn, and that's something you can't just turn on and off.

Let's not rewrite history, either. The Bulls spoiled everyone with 62 wins in the regular season, but they didn't all come easy. Still, even against the Pacers, Chicago got the stops when it had to and advanced in five games.

Rose, who twisted his left ankle foolishly going for a steal as time expired (why was he in, anyway?), said he doesn't know why the team keeps coming out flat. But he isn't one to make excuses when things go south. But he thinks the defensive lapses can be solved quite easily.

"Miscommunication," he said. "Guys aren't talking. It can easily be fixed. We're not worried about that. Communication is a part of the game. But we just got to get into people a little more."

There was a sense the Bulls were as overconfident as their fans, and their defense was one reason why. The Bulls had the best record in the NBA because they were first or second in the most important defensive categories during the regular season. Against the Hawks, they gave up an average of 80 points in their three March meetings, with Chicago winning twice.

In those three games, Johnson scored just 41 total points, including one 5-for-20 atrocity. But again, that was the regular season.

"I thought we did a decent job on him, but he's one of those guys," Korver said. "There are a handful of guys in the NBA, when they get hot, you can't stop them by yourself. He's one of those guys. Derrick is one of those guys."

Johnson was the guy who looked like the real MVP. He played his game, the Bulls let him go, and Atlanta is up 1-0 in the best-of-seven series.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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